For many Americans, blended ancestry is an integral part of their identity. The mosaic of hyphenated heritages preserves cultural connections beyond the United States, lineages that build pride and a sense of belonging. But for Americans descended from enslaved Africans, the roots of their ancestry are often a mystery. Family trees go dark after five or six generations, a reminder that 150 years ago, black people weren’t considered people.

Genealogists refer to this as “the brick wall,” an obstruction in African American lineage that dates to 1870 when the federal Census began recording African descendants — 250 years after they were first hauled in chains to what would become the United States.

Before then, their lives existed on paper only as another person’s property. To penetrate the brick wall, black Americans frequently must rely on the names of their ancestors’ owners.

“You can find them through [their owners’] tax records, estate records, slave schedules and wills,” said Mary Elliott, the “Slavery and Freedom” curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Even after abolition, the black experience has fallen victim to campaigns that obscure the darkest parts of the American story, diminishing African Americans’ connections to their pasts and warping the collective memory of the nation’s history.

But in recent years, black Americans have pursued new efforts to uncover their stories. From exploring sunken vessels of the Middle Passage to reconstructing museum exhibits that chronicle slavery, African Americans are breaking down the barriers that separate them from their ancestors and reconnecting with a lineage once lost.


Episode 10

WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE U.S. CAPITOL

On Jan 6th 2021, insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. But the United States Capitol has been a battleground for white supremacy since its founding. (The Washington Post)

On Jan 6th 2021, insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capital. But the United States capitol has been a battle ground for white supremacy since it’s founding.


Episode 9

VOTER SUPPRESSION

Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia, coupled with two runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate, have drawn national attention to the state. (The Washington Post)

Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia in 2020, coupled with two runoff elections that determined control of the Senate have drawn national attention to Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project, and the influence of voter suppression on American politics. It’s an issue we’re still grappling with as a nation to this day through systems that on their face, may seem completely unrelated to America’s origin story, but are still deeply rooted in those early slave holding ideals.


Episode 8

SUNDOWN TOWN

Forsyth Georgia became a whites-only sundown county in 1912. It remained that way for over 70 years. Today, it's one of the wealthiest counties in America. (The Washington Post)

Forsyth County Georgia became a whites-only sundown county in 1912, where it was either illegal or unsafe for Black people to be there after dark. It remained that way for over 70 years. Today, it’s one of the wealthiest counties in America. But during Reconstruction, Forsyth was a mixed county where Black people made considerable strides. In the midst of the Jim Crow era, an anti-Black campaign led two neighboring counties to expel its Black populations, inspiring Forsyth to do the same.

Episode 7

AN INQUIRY INTO THE LAW OF NEGRO SLAVERY

The citizen's arrest law cited as defense for Ahmaud Arbery's killing was written in 1861 and specifically designed to control Georgia's Black population. (The Washington Post)

Ahmaud Arbery’s death was one of multiple flash points in the last few years that have made people question whether or not the foundation of America’s justice system is equality or racism. Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law has historically been used to reinforce the racial hierarchy they were created to uphold by providing cover for whites who were oppressing blacks. They were written in 1861 by Thomas Cobb, a lawyer, slave owner, Confederate Congressman, and co-founder of University of Georgia’s law school who wrote the book of record on why Black people should be enslaved.


Episode 6

MONUMENTS & MOURNING

How erasing Black people from local and national history for over 300 years led to the removal of confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia. (Ross Godwin, Nicole Ellis/The Washington Post)

The death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and ultimately led to the removal of 11 confederate statues in the former capital of the Confederacy. But the symbolism the statues represented predate both George Floyd and the confederacy by centuries. Reporter Nicole Ellis talks to local experts about how the realization of Black people’s contribution to Richmond, and the role confederate statues played in suppressing that information, compelled protestors and government officials to remove them.

Episode 5

JUNETEENTH

In 2020, The Post’s Nicole Ellis visited Galveston, Tex., where Gen. Gordon Granger gave an order that emancipated 250,000 enslaved people on June 19, 1865. (The Washington Post)

Juneteenth has taken on a symbolic national reverence as the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas, but, in reality, the emancipation proclamation didn’t end slavery, and neither did the Civil War. Revisiting Galveston, Tex., where Gen. Gordon Granger delivered an order that emancipated 250,000 enslaved people on June 19, 1865, reporter Nicole Ellis examines if Granger’s clarifying words on the value of Black life in America distinguishes Juneteenth as emancipation day. But our ability to live up to that ideal as a nation may be best measured in the days, weeks and years that followed.


Episode 4

THE LOST CAUSE

Host Nicole Ellis investigates the Lost Cause propaganda campaign, the women most influential to its success, and museums that are setting the record straight. (Lindsey Sitz, Nicole Ellis, Ross Godwin/Nicole Ellis)

One of the most successful propaganda campaigns in American history was developed to obscure the role of slavery in the Civil War. The Lost Cause narrative, perpetuated by groups sympathetic to the Confederate effort, asserted the war was fought over states’ rights and downplayed slavery as the defining “right” in dispute.

The Lost Cause narrative was fueled by popular films and strengthened by Confederate monuments erected across the country. It influenced depictions of slavery in school textbooks, mollifying the brutality of plantation culture and characterizing enslaved Africans as loyal to white Southern families.

Efforts to unravel the influence of the Lost Cause have proliferated in recent years, including in the former Confederate capital of Richmond. In 2013, the Museum of the Confederacy — an institution created as a shrine to the Lost Cause — merged with the American Civil War Museum and reframed the narrative around the Confederate artifacts on display. The reshaped exhibits clarified the role slavery played in America’s development, the war’s outbreak and the racial tensions that followed.

Christy Coleman, former chief executive of the American Civil War Museum, says Americans carry around the legacies of slavery every day.

“The only way that you really can come to some form of conciliatory behavior is when everybody finally understands it,” Coleman said.


Episode 3

THE GENETICS OF RACE

In 1991, construction workers found the remains of free and enslaved Africans at a burial site in Manhattan. The discovery paved the way for ancestry tests. (Nicole Ellis, Ross Godwin/TWP)

Scientific advances in human genetics have largely prioritized the biology of people with European ancestry. The endeavor reached a low point with the rise of the eugenics movement, leading to many scientific and statistical methods that continue to be used today. In modern classrooms, the work of eugenicists is often divorced from its origins and motivations, presented as morally neutral. Many scholars argue that eugenicists’ efforts to prove what they already believed — that humans can be bred into a superior race — have hindered understanding of the diversity of the human genome.

These concerns were pivotal in 1991, when more than 15,000 intact human remains were discovered in Lower Manhattan during excavation for a federal office building. Geneticists at Howard University realized that traditional research methods were falling short in identifying remains in the African burial ground, which dated to the 17th and 18th centuries, when African descendants were still enslaved in New York City.

Sequencing the human genome has offered new opportunities to bridge the Middle Passage with DNA. By sequencing genetic traits and overlaying them with ecological environments where they are most prevalent, geneticists have tried to pinpoint the geographic origins of people unfamiliar with their ancestry.

Today, genetic banks are being built throughout Africa to correct course, but work remains in the effort to pinpoint the origins of black Americans.


Episode 2

DIVING WITH A PURPOSE

Host Nicole Ellis scuba dives with teenagers training to help the National Park Service find the Guerrero, the lost wreck of an illegal slave ship from 1827. (The Washington Post)

Despite incredible strides, genealogical research falls short in connecting American descendants of slavery with the African communities from which their ancestors were taken.

European colonizers transported an estimated 12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean between 1525 and 1866, according to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Enslaved Africans were stripped of identities and shipped as though they were textiles, wheat or other cargo.

“It was a business,” said Elliott of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “You won’t see many names documented, but you’ll see numbers. You’ll see gender. You’ll see age.”

As the international slave trade was outlawed in the early 19th century, many slave ships were repurposed for piracy, leaving little evidence of their former lives as vessels for human cargo. Of the more than 10,000 slave ships that made voyages during the transatlantic slave trade, only five have been identified worldwide. Archaeologists and scholars suspect thousands more dot coastlines beneath the surface.

Among those searching for the vessels of the Middle Passage is a group of teenagers working with Diving With a Purpose, an international organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of the African diaspora lost to the oceans’ depths. Their quest is focused on the Guerrero, an illegal slave ship that crashed along the coral reef off the coast of Florida in 1827.

“It makes me feel more connected to my past ancestors than what any history class has ever taught me,” said 18-year-old diver Michaela Strong.

Episode 1

AMERICA’S LAST KNOWN SLAVE SHIP

Reporter Nicole Ellis visits Africatown, Ala., for the commemoration of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive on U.S. shores. (The Washington Post)

Unlike most descendants of enslaved people, the residents of Africatown — a predominantly black community in Mobile, Ala. — know their ancestors’ stories.

They were carried from the West African nation of Benin in an illegal smuggling expedition financed by wealthy American businessman Timothy Meaher in 1860, decades after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished. The schooner that carried the enslaved Africans, called the Clotilda, is considered America’s last known slave ship.

As an artifact of American history, the Clotilda was lost for generations. The captain had set fire to the vessel to avoid detection, causing it to sink into the Mobile River. The shackled Africans released onshore became the founders of Africatown.

For generations, the lost ship left a hole in the story of the historical community. But the Clotilda’s discovery in August revealed the enslavers’ actions and highlighted the perseverance of the people onboard, giving their descendants a sense of validation and clarity that few descendants of slaves in America have experienced.

Page design by Nina Wescott. Graphics by Brian Monroe. Video producing by Nicole Ellis and Ross Godwin.